Stellar Relic

Tag - MMORPG

Level Boost: The New Sorry

Nothing says I'm sorry like 'pay me another 60 bucks for less content'

Level boosts are becoming the ultimate make good for the developers of MMOs (and similar games) who are unable to make their old content compelling enough to play. “Sorry we can’t figure out how to make anything compelling beyond the new end game” is what each developer is saying, essentially, about level boosts. Sometimes, this is appropriate; after 10 years of playing WoW, I can honestly say that I never again want to do 1-60. Other times, it is less a quality of life thing and more of a ‘yeah, we know, this whole first bit kinda sucks and always has.’

Creating content that is both repeatable and compelling is an incredibly difficult challenge. Unless you are the type to enjoy grinding, there aren’t many games that manage to do it. In most genres this isn’t much of a problem, for a variety of reasons: the grind could be the whole point of the game (Diablo 3); the game could only need to be played once for full effect (The Last of Us); the players could be the ones in charge of producing content (EVE Online).

and by history we mean our whole game

This is why MMOs in particular are susceptible to alt-fatigue, the exhaustion of static content that must be repeated time and again. World of Warcraft is a pretty great example of a game with a high level of alt-fatigue potential. The game really only starts at max level – different character roles are required for group activities and you can reasonably expect a large portion of your players to want to experience multiple roles over time. Logically this means those players should want to play hybrid classes such as the Druid or the Paladin, but humans are illogical creatures. They will of course make a Warrior, and then a Mage, and then a Priest to cover the same bases that a single Paladin or Druid can.

The problem with this is that leveling through WoW is by and large the same experience no matter what class the player chooses. It is a static experience that clashes with the dynamic experience of end game content. You must do (by and large) the same quests, in (roughly) the same order, whether you are a warrior or paladin or mage or priest. Thus, ‘illogical’ players that roll three different classes to fill three different roles will likely not be enjoying the content on the second time through, and probably start to hate it on the third.

This person has a problem. They probably also really like Friends.

Image courtesy of Engadget.com

There are, of course, exceptions to this; my wife is in fact one of them. She enjoys completing the same content over and over and over again. She also is on her 1 billionth rewatch of Friends. For most people, though, repeating the leveling experience is not a compelling thing. That’s where the level boosts come in.

Developers like Bungie and Blizzard are no dummies when it comes to player experience; for all the griping that can occur on the internet, those two companies have actually repeatedly delivered some of the finest player experiences of their times. They worry about this problem no less than you hate that the problem exists, but creating handcrafted worlds that adhere to a narrative that they create seems, at least so far, fundamentally incompatible with a refreshing and compelling repeatable experience.

There is some hope. Advances in procedural generation of content could provide an avenue through which compelling narratives and worlds can be repeated – at least, that’s the hope of No Man’s Sky. And games like EVE Online have shown that there is a recipe for player-generated content that doesn’t end in tragic failure, though in those worlds the developer-created narratives often take a back seat to the player-generated drama.

Welcome to The Matrix, basically

For now, level boosts like the one Blizzard introduced in Warlords of Draenor and the one that Bungie are deploying with The Taken King are the implicit apology for a failure to generate compelling leveling experiences. These failures are not necessarily the result of negligence or ignorance on the part of the developer, though, contrary to what many embittered customers of those companies like to allege. They are the symptoms of the inherent design problem present in persistent, handcrafted online spaces.

Level boosts are a good thing, whether old timers or other detractors like it or not – at least, as long as developers are still trying to push the boundaries of the industry and find the way ahead. As a stop gap measure, level boosts are not only sufficient but considerate. The danger lies in whether companies see the level boost as another ‘feature’ to add on to expansions of content. Should we arrive at a point in mainstream development wherein level boosts are the ‘best practice’ for MMOs and no time is being spent on trying to fix the core issue that level boosts were created to address – well, then it’ll be time to just pack it all up and go home.

Point/Counterpoint: The Legacy of MMOs

World of Warcraft

MMOs are destined to die. It’s a fact of life that we as MMO players don’t often like to acknowledge, but at some point every company will either a) crash and burn and take the servers down with them or b) transition to other genres and take the servers down with them. The question isn’t ‘what if EVE Online or The Secret World were to go down forever?’ – it is instead ‘what should happen to MMOs when their parents need to pull the plug?’ Some, like Mr. Murff, believe MMOS should be archived so that players can still experience them after closure; others, like Mr. Andrews, believe intellectual property rights should remain intact. 

James Murff

I’m very much a big proponent of games as historical artifacts (in the same way as painting, or books, or music, or what have you), so I am, of course, a damn dirty liberal hippie. Here’s how.

MMOs are an essential part of the gaming landscape, and offer people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Games like Warhammer, City of Heroes, and Star Wars Galaxies left an indelible mark not only on the MMO genre, but also the people who played them, some of whom did so for almost a decade.

By allowing companies to wholly control these games to the point that they can shutter them, forever, never release the source or software to the community, and generally freeze all attempts at historical archival, it creates entire sections of gaming history that are arbitrarily “lost.” This is unique to games-as-service too; in books, movies, and even non-MMO games like Halo, archival is always an option, because there will always be a copy somewhere that can be backed up. Not so much for the religiously-guarded servers of MMOs.

I think it’s fully within a company’s right to shutter an MMO if it’s not performing. That’s fine! But I think that there should be a legal mechanism or organization in place to gracefully transition those games into “archival”; that is, they are no longer subscription-based or require purchases (except the clients, much like a normal game purchase) and the original company no longer maintains or updates the game in any way, but you can still play them.

Whether this is done through a full transference of property rights, or via negotiated licenses (such as Creative Commons) is a valid point of contention, as is which games should be selected for archival. But I don’t think it can be said that these games shouldn’t be saved in some capacity. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing them? All MMOs die eventually, after all.

I do think it’s fair to say that the source shouldn’t be released, or released under a limited license. However, it’s not like companies haven’t been sued for source theft before; Dennis Dyack’s company was destroyed because Epic sued them over the unauthorized use of Unreal Engine’s source code.

This isn’t an emotional response, it’s a historic one. We have a duty to preserve gaming culture and history. Archival is an important aspect of any creative medium, and games are a creative medium. Imagine if we didn’t strive to preserve books, or movies, or paintings; many classics would be lost to time. This is no Library of Alexandria, of course, but the preservation of games should be an important aspect of contributing to the medium. MMOs are the only games with this unique problem – all other games can be archived, either digitally or physically – so I think it’s only fair that we put measures in place to give them a measure of archival as well.

I absolutely believe it is the right of a company to shut down and no longer support an MMO. But I also believe we have a duty to preserve games – or at least the games that had such a huge impact on our medium – and MMOs fall under that category.

As for intellectual copyright, there’s all sorts of problems with how companies and the government handles copyright in the United States. The foremost, though, is that we give people and companies copyrights to their products for almost 100 years after the dissolution or death of either. If you have an estate, you retain the copyright forever. There’s a reason why alternative rights contracts – such as Creative Commons – have sprung up over the years in the wake of modern copyright law.

Part of a creative medium’s value is in how we transition the concept of private creation into public creation. Many beloved characters and stories exist within this public domain – Sherlock Holmes, the Cthulhu Mythos, Dracula, etc – and the stories that have resulted are some of the best we’ve seen.

Companies should have the right to protect the software they create and a right to shut down a service they are providing. What I don’t think they have the right to do, though, is forever lock off chunks of history for the sake of a profit margin.

We have a historical imperative to preserve these games, just as we do to preserve other creative mediums. That means a graceful transition (how? I’m not entirely sure, the details have to be hammered out, and it will be expensive) into a state where the company is no longer supporting the game, but either players or a non-profit (non-profit is my personal favorite option) are running the server. Players should be able to play, understand, and enjoy these important dead games, without infringing upon the company’s copyrights.

MMOs are small societies, experiential games that pull together people in interesting and even studiable ways. EVE Online is considered a good avenue of study for economists, and the infamous plague in World of Warcraft led to research in how disease is spread in a society. They are indeed a product of their time, and as time goes on, these MMOs change. Saying that the experience of EVE now is fundamentally different than EVE of 2005 is not disputable.

Still, though, we shouldn’t be so quick to let the tangible aspect of these MMOs disappear. YouTube and the like only gets us so far; in order to truly understand and appreciate a society that developed and is now dead, you need access to more than just their media. You need their monuments, their cities, their real and approachable spaces. The death of an MMO is the destruction of these monuments, the dismantling of the tangible, and all that’s left are second-hand accounts.

There is a wonder in wandering these spaces, empty or full, and seeing the legacy left by both players and developers. A book without a monument lacks impact; a monument without a book lacks context. They are inextricable, and to deprive us of one is to deprive us of the whole experience. That’s why we should preserve these spaces, and perhaps even some of these societies.

Dave Andrews

This is a pretty cut-and-dried case in my mind. The companies who construct MMOs do (and should) hold all rights to their work. It is their property, paid for in the labor and infrastructure costs associated with the teams who build them, and to suggest that we are merely ‘allowing’ companies to wholly own something they made is a ludicrous argument. The only entity entitled to the ownership (in whole) is the entity who created it (or to whom the product is sold). To argue otherwise would be to argue for the dissolution of the concept of private property.

Being a long time MMO player – and having spent time with almost all of the titles mentioned above and a fair few others – I totally get the emotional response to a hobby effectively being killed by something beyond your control. It sucks, but at the end of the day you simply have to respect the rights of the intellectual property owners. If they can no longer maintain and operate an MMO and the infrastructure involved (which can be quite expensive), or no longer find it in their best interest, then they have the right to shut it all down and move on.

The other thing to keep in mind is that in the vast majority of cases, MMOs are not shut down arbitrarily. MMOs are a product/service and gaming studios are businesses. When they start consistently going into the red and the choice is either appeasing a handful of players or trying to keep your employees fed and clothed.. well, I know which option I’d pick.

Where most of this argument exists is in a very emotional place and there really is no arguing with emotion at the end of the day. However, the fact remains that source code is no less an asset than a building or an iPhone or anything else – and players are very much not entitled to that asset. As we should all know by now, when you subscribe to an MMO you are purchasing the rights to use a service and a client. You are categorically not buying the source code, server code, or anything else.

In addition, there are costs to consider. How would such an ‘archival’ solution that involves legislation be funded? In my personal experience running MMOs (backend server work, etc), I would estimate the cost of running an MMO of three thousand or fewer players to be around 27,000 USD (2015 dollars). This covers things like rackspace at a semi-decent datacenter, labor for a semi-competent engineer (who can do database, network, and system engineer work), and all the miscellaneous things that go into serving up MMO content. That doesn’t sound like a lot – but how many MMOs have had the plug pulled on them over the years? How many more can we expect to die in the next 10? Is this really something we want government funding to go towards? I realize I’m asking a lot of questions, here, but I truly don’t understand my colleague’s obsession with keeping dead things alive.

Setting aside the copyright argument (I can’t really argue with someone who believes copyrights are culture killers) and the realities of cost (it would cost around 27,000 USD per month to run a barebones MMO from my experience), this is the most important argument I think I can make against a forced method of maintenance mode for MMO properties: the game you are trying to preserve has already died by the time maintenance mode would be an option. Think of an EVE Online with 10% of its current playerbase – how fun is that game even? If you were a newcomer looking to experience EVE Online in 25 years, you wouldn’t be able to. Hell, if you are a newcomer right now you wouldn’t gain any understanding of the previous 10 years of the game, even if you put 10 years into it.

Can anyone understand the “many whelps” of Onyxia or the context of Leeroy Jenkins even today? MMOs are an experiential piece of entertainment that is constantly shifting and requires, uniquely, a base number of players to really understand. The reason MMOs live (and die) in ways that other genres of video game do not is this simple fact. Social and cultural context are what define MMO experiences, more so than the code or the quests or the mechanics of gameplay.

MMOs are about people; it is the only real draw of the genre. How those people come together, the bonds that are built from shared experiences, the competition of being better than the other guild, or team, or realm, those are what make MMOs worth preserving – and it is also why they cannot be preserved in the manner James describes. We don’t need to preserve the ‘approachable spaces’ of a game by keeping the servers on. Comparing YouTube to the dusty scrolls of yester-millenia is facetious at best, not to mention the fact that the reason for the emphasis on preserving spaces in the real world is that those spaces often functioned as media (read: statues, plinths, triumphal arches, pillars, and columns all serve as media upon which information is written).

The digital media of the modern era is perfectly suited to record the digital spaces that function as MMOs. Without the context of actually having been there, having been a part of the zeitgeist of World of Warcraft or Star Wars: Galaxies or EVE Online, future players will be fundamentally unable to understand what made those games great. The experiences that those communities share are the only thing worth saving – and keeping the server lights on isn’t the way to save them.

There is, however, a method of preserving these experiences that exists right now. Everyone can (and many do) engage in this archival process already. It not only relates systems, art, and level design; it relates the actual experience of playing. It is called YouTube and it is free of cost to the developer. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City famously included EVE Online in their initial slate of video game inductions in 2013 and they didn’t do it by running a small server version of the game; they did it by putting together a video presentation. Game experiences change in MMOs, more so than any other category of video game. They are fluid in nature and the joy of them exists not in code, but in the people you play with and against. Better to document and record those experiences than to put up an empty shell of what used to be a video game.

To reiterate: it sucks to realize that a part of your life is now gone and can never be retrieved. That is as true for childhood as it is for a player’s alternate life in MMOs. Part of growing up and maturing as an adult is the realization that you can never, ever recreate old magic. You’ll never down Onyxia for the first time again; you’ll never win your first 1v1 in EVE Online again either. Instead, you should focus on looking forward, to making new magic and new memories and new friends in new spaces and new communities and new contexts. It is important to know and respect the legacy that past MMOs have delivered to us, but that doesn’t mean we should wallow around in their graves in a sad attempt at paying respects.